Reflections, amidst the on-going [so called] training stuff; "All religions lead to the same goal", is a concept widely subscribed by many educated people. I feel that this notion needs to be enquired into and understood.
If all religions have a well-defined and common goal, the difference would be purely cultural (A post on 'Culture' is pending; I will publish it soon). Difference in culture is totally acceptable, to any thinking person (a la René Descartes: Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am). If all the religions have an identical intent, will there be any religious issue that necessitates a discussion? But then, what is the truth of the statement "All religions lead to the same goal"?
If ethical values constitute the goal of religion, certainly there is a singular goal adopted by all religions, the ethical values being universal. I raise questions here- should any person be religious to be ethical? Is there a need to be educated by religious scriptures alone to know what is ethical and what is not? Is it not true that any normal/sane human being is well informed about universal values? From the aboriginal in the outback of Australia, to the Zulus in Africa, to the pandit in India and to the Pope in Rome- for starters, they share at least this value; not getting hurt at the hands of the other! That others also do not want to get hurt from him/her is also very well known to them. Other values like honesty, compassion, sharing, etc. are equally known facts. Ipso facto, they form the moral infrastructure for human interaction, not only with one another but also with other organisms that inhabit this world. This value-knowledge is born of human common sense. When there is this faculty of choice for a human being, there should be a matrix of norms known to him for making the right, rather appropriate, choice(s). If the human being is totally programmed, there will be no such thing as right or wrong in human behaviour. Without religious masters and religious scriptures preaching about right and wrong, one is very well informed about them. Therefore, ethical values cannot constitute the goal of any religion; for one can be ethical without being religious in anyway.
On the other hand, some religions take away the universality of these common-sense-born values by giving sanction to the killing of those who do not conform to their beliefs and who articulate their non-conformity. That the common-sense-born ethics are better off, without any interference by religion, is really a cause for sadness. In fact, religion should confirm the universal values as most of them do. The Vedic religion adds strength to the value-structure by introducing punya (virtue) and paap (sin) for actions that are right and wrong. Many other popular religions also introduce this element of reward and punishment. Suppose the goal for all religions is just reward or punishment, we may be able to say that all religions have the same goal despite the differences in these rewards and punishments.
Theology differs from religion to religion. The concept of the reality of God, this world and ‘you’ is again thought of differently. More often, God is looked upon as a judgmental person located in a place yonder; albeit He is considered as an embodiment of all the attributes we associate with Him. Reaching that place and living with Him is the goal. Neither the Vedic religion nor Buddhism will accept this as a goal. A devout Christian will not accept any goal other than reaching heaven as promised by his scripture. Here again, it comes to mind, what does the statement that "All religions lead to the same goal" mean?
For a vaidika (someone under the direction of Vedic instrustions) who accepts with total understanding that this world including one's body-mind-sense complex is the Lord's manifestation, any form of prayer and worship is valid. Every name and form is valid enough to invoke the Lord, the Lord being every name and form. But prayer- mental, oral or ritualistic- is karma, and capable of producing a result. The given result is not the goal of religions much less the goal of any individual even if one thinks so. The goal of an informed vaidika is freedom from a sense of limitation centered on 'I'. Can there be an ultimate goal for a human being other than this? The freedom, moksha/nirvaana, from this sense of limitation is the human goal.
The Vedas say that the sense of limitation is due to one not knowing oneself. Then, it is obvious that the human goal is Self-knowledge/realization. The theologies of various world religions do not have anything to do with this goal. They are committed to their own beliefs even though they are non-verifiable and more often than not, unreasonable. They have a right to have their beliefs which do not have any space for accommodating other religious goals. But these beliefs are not acceptable to the thinking individual. They are not acceptable to a person who understands moksha either. So, all that a vaidika can say is "All forms of prayer are valid". Being an act, karma, each prayer can produce a limited result. One wants a limited result in life too (Isn't this contradicting to saying, our wants are unending?). But it can never be the goal of religion...
I hope I have not hurt any religious sentiments here. Please feel free to correct me if I have erred anywhere. I am not someone overtly erudite with the Vedas. What I have penned down here is a result of the odd discussion I have had with people, and what I have gathered after reading various articles. Yes, I am still a confused soul… One article, I talk about Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa practicing the major religions et al, and now- this… ;)